"We from the Becket Fund are convinced that the search for truth - and therefore for God - is inborn in any human being and that it goes across cultures and geographical borders: our mission is to defend the right of this search using legal tools". Asma T. Uddin (in the picture), American citizen of Muslim religion, is a young and brilliant lawyer who earned her degree at the University of Chicago with a remarkable professional résumé' in legal firms between Philadelphia and Miami. Particularly sensitive to the issue of religious identity since she was in the college - when she personally experienced the clash with controversial interpretations of her religion which were very different to the ones she serenely had been accustomed since her childhood -, a few years ago Asma decided that her faith and its free manifestation would be the priorities of her professional life. Today, Uddin, who is also a columnist for specialized blogs on websites for media vehicles like the Washington Post/Newsweek and Cnn, works in the international department of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, e legal office of public interest based in Washington which deals specifically with the defence of citizens or groups of any religion who complain about discriminations related to their own faith.
In reality, the Becket Fund also works in the cultural and media fields: "Besides the legal work - the young lawyer explains -, I am involved in the effort to raise awareness through the media and I work for scientific popularization through academic papers and conferences."
Lawyer Uddin, what are the most relevant cases on which you have worked?
At the international level, I have worked in the effort to abrogate the Blasphemy law in Indonesia, the so called Blasphemy Act. One of the goals of such a law is to help the government protect the six recognized religions of the Country - Islam, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism - punishing the people who preach any interpretation deemed "deviant" or who encourage conversions to other faiths. With my colleagues we have presented a paper inviting the Court to abrogate the law, which was used in the past to persecute members of other religions.
And on what have you focused in the United States?
I have worked on various fronts, for example on the effort to raise awareness through the media about a statute in Oregon that used to forbid teachers working in State schools to wear religious symbols and clothing. I was furthermore involved in the defence of many cases which appealed to the so called "ministerial exception", according to which religious entities may favour staff of a certain faith or require all applicants and employees to conform to the religious principles of the organization. In fact, this constitutes a fundamental part of the right to religious and expressive association.
Why is religious freedom such an important right today and what are the most urgent challenges it has to face?
Freedom of religion is an issue of fundamental importance in any era considering that the search for truth is essential for human dignity. Today, such a right is central from the perspective of global security problems which all of us are worried about. While many observers and governments, in fact, fear that the authorisation to profess one's own faith may lead to anarchy, this favours a greater public order: in fact, societies flourish when citizens are allowed to freely and peacefully express their deep beliefs. Repression of religious feelings not only does not eliminate it but also forces it to hide, causing in many instances a drift towards extremist and violent reactions.
How is it possible to foster religious freedom and pluralism within the most traditional Muslim communities?
It is very difficult, above all in those Countries where the solution to a problematic issue is to forbid it. It is hard to change such a way of thinking and to convince people that proscriptions inevitably lead to other problems. I spend most of my time looking for ways to explain certain values in different cultural contexts. At the end, I always go back to the idea that a religion is basically a searching process: it is a path we follow and we should be able to ask questions and to face external threats and derision. To consider religion a spiritual research is far different from seeing it as a social identity which must be protected with walls in order to avoid its break-up. The more we look at faith as something that may face obstacles and be strengthened by comparison, the less we will be lead to fear it.
To what conditions may religions contribute to peace at a national and international level?
The State control over faith - whether translated in the control over the sermons in the mosques or in the persecution of "deviant" interpretations with the pretext of national security - politicises faith itself. Thus, for example, Islam ends up being an instrument that the State manipulates to serve its own interests. The extremism we know today is a result of this politicisation of faith. On the other hand, in almost any Country, religious leaders play a central role in civil society; often it is they who are able to better interpret the needs of their communities who esteem them as reliable and authoritative. This is why, if we are willing to bring forward a real change, also in foreign politics, we have to engage these central figures.
The Becket Fund strongly opposes the concept of "religious defamation" the way it has been presented, for example, at the United Nations. Why?
The supporters of the politically correct at the UN claim to be willing to protect minorities through greater restrictions to the freedom of speech. However, by supporting the government restriction of speech, they are actually making easier the persecution of the same people they are trying to protect. Let us take the example of the impressive attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Pakistan by a group of Islamist militants last May, which resulted in 94 casualties and more than 100 wounded. For decades the Ahmadi community in the Country has been subjected to discrimination, partly due to the laws against blasphemy that do not allow Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims, to preach, "or to outrage in any way the religious feelings of Muslims". If, in some cases, anti-blasphemy laws were originally promulgated to keep public disorder under control, the way they are enforced not only leads to such a disorder but it also helps justify and exacerbate it. These norms influence customs - the so called "street law" - and generate a culture of impunity in which private citizens are often left without State protection in the face of extremists and other criminals who manipulate legal regulations. The UN Resolution on the defamation of religion represents, from many points of view, an international version of these anti-blasphemy laws. At the very least, it uses the same phrasing because it aims to protect ideas or religion as an ideology, rather than protecting human beings. That reverses the traditional way of understanding human rights, which deals with the protection of people and not of concepts.
If the State control over religion generates conflicts, what is your opinion of the French secular model?
The problem related to the laïcité is two-fold. First of all, it represents an infraction of people's fundamental rights. Secondly, its effectiveness is only a perception: this model has actually failed from every point of view and it has exacerbated the problems it was trying to solve. We do not need to observe the whole of history to prove it, considering that the last century provides enough examples about it. When faith and believers are denied a full participation to civil life, they do not disappear from the society: on the contrary, they look for alternative ways to influence its dynamics. In the best-case scenario, it is through a peaceful protest inspired by faith. In the worst-case scenario, it is done in the form of religious terrorism.
Translation from the italian language by Elena Dini